Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who Taught Whom?

Once upon a time, in between finishing college and starting seminary, I worked as a substitute teacher.  Out of all the temporary jobs I've ever had, I probably loved substiteaching the most.

There was, however, one day when I did not enjoy substiteaching.  That day took place when I filled in for a neophyte first grade teacher who had never had a sub before.  Due to her inexperience, this otherwise great teacher made the critical error of assuming that I knew the jargon of a first grade classroom.  (I, of course, didn't.)  And the result of combining her assumption with my ignorance was that I had a list of things that I was supposed to teach the kids, but I didn't actually know what any of those things were.

At 8:30, we do Calendar.  At 9:15, it's Happy Friend Time with Mr. Letters Hour.  At 11:37, it's Super Storybook Explosion.

That's pretty much all I had in my teacher-prepared notes.

Of course, I tried my best to prevent those kids from knowing that I had no idea what I was doing.  Ok, I'd saccharinely say, who wants to tell me about Calendar time?  But after doing this a couple of times, the students had figured out what was really going on, that I was just trying to get them to teach me what I was supposed to teach them.  And once they realized that, they saw that the tables had turned.  The teacher was now the one learning.  And the learners were now those attempting to teach.

I bring this up because, when it comes to church music and hymondy, something very similar happens whenever we Lutherans start eating up non-Lutheran stuff.  Just like that day in Ms. What's Her Name's first grade classroom, the one who is supposed to be imparting knowledge ends up having to take knowledge in.  Likewise, the one who is supposed to be absorbing it is having to dish it out.  And whenever that happens, whenever the teacher-student relationship is reversed, the quality of instruction is never very good.

It happens like this:

So one day, a non-Lutheran says to himself, hey, I'm going to write a hymn.  And because he recognizes that Colossians 3:16 states that hymns exist to teach people stuff, he then thinks in his brain, since I'm a Non-Lutheran, I'm going to teach all kinds of Non-Lutheran stuff in this hymn.  So, if he's a Methodist, he teaches people that Jesus becomes their savior when they welcome him into their hearts.  If he's a Calvinist, he teaches people that they should think God is super awesome because Jesus didn't die for everyone.  If he's a Pietist, he teaches people that the love of God can be found in swooning over our own faith.

Then a bunch of Methodists and Baptists and Pietists start singing these hymns because they affirm their theology and because they have pretty melodies and are easy to remember.

Then your Grandmother Ethel hears the choir sing one of these hymns on S. Parkes Cadman's radio program.  Or your Uncle Herb hears Andy Williams' recording of it on his latest Christmas album.  Or your daughter Stayceee hears Switchfoot play it at the concert she went to with her Non-Denominational friends last week.

Then Grandma Ethel or Uncle Herb or Little Stayceee asks his or her pastor if he or she can sing those songs during the Sunday morning service.  And, either because he doesn't want to upset someone or because he's a theological sack of mashed potatoes, Pastor says yes and his congregation falls in love with this new piece of music.

But then, when someone objects to this inclusion of non-Lutheran music in a Lutheran service, the congregation singing such a hymn becomes somewhat defensive.  Yeah, it had some bad theology in it, she says.  But don't worry.  We Lutheranized it.

Now, by Lutheranized, this congregation does not mean that she tracked down the author of the hymn, properly catechized him, then convinced said freshly-orthodox pastor to freeze all licensing of his composition, recall all copies and rewrite every word of his poetry with the faith of the Augsburg Confession dripping out of his pen.  No, by Lutheranized, this congregation means that she changed maybe three or four words so that the hymn was no longer teaching blatant false doctrine.  It used to say of the Sacrament of the Altar, too soon we rise; the symbols disappear.  Now it says, the vessels disappear.  It used to say, once for favored sinners slain.  Now it says, once for every sinner slain.  It used to say, I feel a rumbly in my tumbly, now I know that I am saved.  Now it says, I feel a rumbly in my tumbly, which is a perfectly natural emotional response to hearing the external Word, which, as we all know, is the sole Power at work in conversion.

Granted, if a Lutheran congregation is going to insist on using non-Lutheran hymns, it's better that she play the heresy-white-out game instead of leaving hell enough alone.  But in the end, she's still turned the tables and gotten things all backwards.  Because instead of the hymns she sings telling her what to confess about the Gospel, she's the one telling those hymns what they ought to confess.  Instead of listening as a theologically brilliant poet deftly executes the immeasurably difficult task of beautifully and clearly proclaiming the pure Gospel in meter and rhyme, she has to shout over a theologically inept poet in an attempt to cover up his mangling of Law and Gospel.  

Or, to put it in simpler terms, instead of those hymns teaching that congregation, that congregation is the one teaching those hymns.  And just as those first grade students came to discover the day I subbed for Ms. What's Her Name, when you're the one instructing the person who is supposed to be educating you, you're really not learning much at all.

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  And my wife had been nagging me to write something other than a Lutheran Satire commentary for a while.


Anonymous said...

All of this is a grand argument in favor of singing more Psalms.

Anonymous said...

Also, it's funny that they changed the Wesley hymn, since Wesley was an Arminian who probably intended to communicate that God favors all sinners.

Anonymous said...

Nice. It's hard to shout over loud boiling test tubes. :)

mqll said...

Of course, the actual solution to this issue, interestingly enough, is one that is REJECTED by those who consider it a problem to begin with.

Let me say that again: I have a solution, but I don't think you will accept it, because it would solve the problem, and most people in opposition to contemporary worship and having praise songs sung in church don't want to solve the problem. They just want contemporary worship to go away.

The solution is to double down and have our own church begin producing good, doctrinal praise songs. Spend some money on it. Pay writers and musicians. Invest resources.

Oooh. But then what happens with the solid, Scriptural, Lutheran praise songs? Might they be sung?

The issue is, of course, not that praise songs are wobbly on the theology — or the students teaching the teacher — no, the issue is simply that some in our church body do not believe that contemporary worship ought to be done.

Even if the songs were doctrinal sound, full of meaning, and taught wonderfully.

That would not be enough. Oh well.

Pastor Fiene said...


I think the solution to the problem is for Lutherans to sing stuff written by Lutherans, whether that was written 400 years ago or 4 minutes ago.

If there are Lutherans today writing stuff on par with Gerhardt, I'd love to hear it.

Nicholas said...

Au contraire, mqll, I think you Lutherans could get a membership boost by *removing* a particular pipe-based instrument from use in many of your churches. You don't need to add any catchy rock hymns.

Anonymous said...

Nick, We got rid of the Pan pipe in our Lutheran churches a few generations ago. "The Pan-pipe-inquisition of 1927" sparked the first walk-out if I'm not mistaken.

Nicholas said...

Maybe it's just the ELCA dudes, but some Lutherans still have them.

Cheryl said...

Pastor Fiene, do I correctly understand your position to be that nothing that was not written by a Lutheran should be sung in Lutheran worship? If so, I think we would have to throw out more than half of LSB, starting with a lot of the Christmas section.

mqll, actually something like that has already been done. I don't have the link handy but I think you can find it at CPH. I listened to some of the samples once, though, and was not very impressed with the musical quality. It all sounded the same. I think we can do better than play the CCM wannabe game.

And I would agree that the objection to much of the music of Contemporary Worship goes beyond the text of many of the songs. It is also about the style, and both the prevailing kinds of texts and the style grow out of a theology that is not Lutheran. As for using non-Lutheran stuff in worship, I think I may differ with Pastor Fiene a bit. I think it's a matter of degree. Is the hymn as a whole solid with maybe just an incidental word that can be easily changed? I don't see a problem with doing that. I do think it is possible to effectively "Lutheranize" some things. I also think it is possible for Lutherans to write things that are non-Lutheran. So I don't think it's a matter of authorship but rather a matter of the text itself. Certainly if the song is permeated with a non-Lutheran view, there is no fixing it and we shouldn't try. But again, if it just requires a minor tweak, I don't see a problem with that.

As for CCM and/or praise & worship songs in Lutheran worship, I probably also differ with Pastor Fiene a bit there. I think that there are texts from the tradition that are good and can be utilized in Lutheran worship. My church is not averse to doing so in small measure. But when we do so we change the approach from a Contemporary Worship one so that the songs are sung in a churchly, reverent way that is conducive to congregational song. One of the hallmarks of Contemporary Worship is the performance element of it: singers and musicians up front leading in a pop style, highly "processed" and amplified presentation, music that is driven by the "praise team" and the beat rather than by the assembly, intentional efforts to manipulate the emotions of the assembly, etc. mqll is right that many of us would be happy for that to go away. But mqll is wrong that those who are critical of Contemporary Worship are also critical of all uses of contemporary music or contemporary instruments. Contemporary Worship is not the same thing as contemporary music.

Cheryl, who as a cantor's wife thinks about these kinds of things too much!

mqll said...

Pastor Fiene,

I think the solution to the problem is for Lutherans to sing stuff written by Lutherans, whether that was written 400 years ago or 4 minutes ago.

Well, then we agree! (Although, I think there are plenty of good hymns and praise songs written by non-Lutherans in the past 400 years. Some are even in our current hymnal...)

If there are Lutherans today writing stuff on par with Gerhardt, I'd love to hear it.

Do you mean like poetry wise? Or just singing wise? Because a Lamb Goes Forth Uncomplainingly I think I can top.

But not in German.

mqll said...


mqll, actually something like that has already been done. I don't have the link handy but I think you can find it at CPH.

You mean, we have invested money in paying people to write music for the church? That is what you are saying?

We might have a bit...we might need to do more...


But I LIKE catchy rock tunes...

Pastor Fiene said...

For the record, I'm not really arguing that we shouldn't use any music written by Post Reformation Non-Lutherans. Obviously we do have areas of theological agreement with other confessions of faith. And because of this, Non-Lutherans can write good hymns that have much to teach us. By and large, however, I think these other confessions' failure to properly understand Justification, Law and Gospel, and the Sacraments makes that a rare thing.

Regardless, I'm simply arguing that, if you have to change a hymn's theology in one spot, the theology is probably not terribly good in any other spot. And if a hymn fails to teach good theology, then it has really failed to achieve its core goal.

I do, of course, recognize that many Non-Lutheran hymns are in LSB. But, theologically speaking, I don't think many of them are terribly good. And they certainly don't deserve to be listed along with the great treasures of Lutheranism.

But, out of love and patience, I still let my folks sing "Beautiful Savior" and "Holy, Holy, Holy."

Pastor Fiene said...

Also, Mark, I'm not quite sure I fully understand your suggestion about paying people to write good church music. Who exactly are we paying?

Pastor Fiene said...

I should perhaps also add that I've never selected "Earth and All Stars" because that hymn is dumb.

Cheryl said...

Thank you for the clarification, Pastor!

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Kyriosity: we certainly should sing the psalms more, both privately and liturgically (if you are interested, I reflect on that here: http://latifhakigaba.blogspot.com/2011/08/place-of-psalms-in-church.html
) but Fr. Fiene, I believe, is driving at a different point here.

Cheryl: You are absolutely right to bring up the fact that the style of music is a crucial factor, without which good decision making about hymns won't take place. There are those who only ever talk about a hymn in terms of what it teaches. I think they are operating with a blindspot. Yet I would be willing to put the style question in their terms, ie., what does this music teach?

Along with the doctrinal content of the words and the appropriateness of the music, I suggest there is yet another factor in deeming a hymn worthy of public worship in the Lutheran Church, viz., the quality of the poetry and language. This is one of the problems with many modern Lutheran hymn writers.

All of that, however, is beyond Fiene's thesis; I apologize. You make a great point, dear Pastor. I think one of the reasons we don't learn as much from hymns that must be Lutheranized is that we don't seem that good at it, certainly not at the Synod level, where the minimalist approach of "doctrinal review" is taken. Another reason is just that the things we would Lutheranize often are unLutheranizable. Some hymns just cannot be catechized. They need to be put out of their misery, not rehabilitated.

court317 said...

Thank you for such a wonderful post! I completely agree with you. I am attending a loosely affiliated Presbyterian college, and therefore I have experienced quite a lot of theology that differs from my own Lutheran theology. I find the entire idea of "praise songs" in a church to be rather disconcerting. Not only are the songs mostly meaningless and convey only two or three ideas, but they also eliminate fellowship with other Christians, which is the point of church. A person singing at the top of their lungs with their hands in the air and their eyes closed is not thinking about their neighbor next to them-they are thinking about themselves. They are not concerned about if the words are conveying a meaningful message, they are worried about how they "feel" when they are singing them. Praise songs, even if they contained solid, Christian doctrine, would still be inadequate to sing in church because they require individuality. You're supposed to move to your own beat, add a few grace notes here and there to show how awesome a singer you are, and do whatever the spirit moves you to do. Everything about the song then becomes about the individual and not the fellowship of the church.

I am not advocating that hymns are automatically best because they're played with an organ and usually don't allow for an obscene amount of melismas. Often times hymns can be less meaningful than a praise song. (A certain hymn about walking in the garden with God comes to mind). I am simply saying that our great Lutheran hymns offer the ability to convey the word of God to each other. When we are singing hymns, we are not just singing them to God. We are also singing them to each other, to help our Brothers and Sisters in their walk of faith.

Anyways, Pastor Fiene, I really want to thank you for your Lutheran Satire (which I find immensely entertaining) and your blog posts. Please keep up the great work! God Bless!

Anonymous said...

court317, while you make some good points, your argument about "praise songs" "eliminating fellowship" is flawed. Most people who criticize "praise songs" and "contemporary worship" criticize the focus these practices places on the horizontal relationships in the congregation at the expense of the vertical relationship between believer and God.

Also, your argument concerning the perceived danger of musical individuality would seem to stand in opposition to the use of liturgical chanting and of 4-part harmony. What makes the use of these individual talents acceptable (or are you truly opposed to them)?

James Kellerman said...

Anonymous asked, "Your argument concerning the perceived danger of musical individuality would seem to stand in opposition to the use of liturgical chanting and of 4-part harmony. What makes the use of these individual talents acceptable (or are you truly opposed to them)?"

Let me offer my response: The problem isn't the use of individual talents. Let's use more of them, in fact! The question is how we use them together in corporate worship. When we sing as a congregation we must make sure that it's less about our showmanship and more about helping our brothers and sisters to sing. Thus, it would be a good use of talent for a soloist to help introduce an unfamiliar hymn. Likewise, a couple of people could sing a descant or a number of people could break into 4-part harmony because such things don't prevent the rest of the people from singing the melody. But when someone starts doing something musically that causes everybody to stop singing, that person needs to refrain from using that talent and use it in a more appropriate context (e.g. as part of a choir piece).

For example, one of the annoying habits practiced by Contemporary Worship musicians (but also not entirely unknown to more traditional musicians) is to make a quick changeup that throws the congregation off. It is as if they were saying, "Yeah, you were ready to start singing the last verse. But we decided we'd rather throw in this little meaningless riff just to fool you. You started singing, but now you look like an idiot as that first note from your throat dies in mid air. That'll teach you not to sing! Instead you'll learn to shut up and focus on us musicians instead, since we're what it is all about!" Thomas Day explores this in greater detail in his book Why Catholics Can't Sing.

Again, the problem court317 describes isn't confined to Contemporary Worship bands alone, although they are definitely far more prone to this vice. It's really a side issue compared to the point that Hans brought up.

Rev. J. Micheel said...

Pastor Fiene,

In one of the hymns you refer to, did "symbols" really change to "vessels," or was it vice versa?

After taking a quick look at your link and another source I had on hand, I think the Presbyterian Hymnal might have been the ones to make the change to "symbols." (The link to the hymn reads "alt. 1972".) Just checking.

Anonymous said...

The debate is not about contemporary versus traditional music, but theology.

A link for Pastor Mark Louderback:


Sorry, I just don't want the LCMS to go this route.